Chad on Monday softened threats to stop sheltering Sudanese refugees and halt oil production following rebel attacks as the United States offered to broker a solution to a dispute with the World Bank.
President Idriss Deby pushed back until the end of April a deadline -- originally set for midday Tuesday -- for shutting off oil output by the landlocked central African state in a disagreement with the World Bank over frozen oil royalties.
Chad said the deadline delay responded to a U.S. government offer to mediate in the dispute, which involves a U.S.-led consortium operating a $3.7 billion (2 billion pounds) oil pipeline in Chad.
But U.S. officials shied away from talking about mediation, saying Washington would act as an "honest broker" to try to foster better understanding between Chad and the World Bank.
"We are not playing a mediating role. We will encourage and cajole, but we will not mediate," said U.S. State Department spokesman Sean McCormack, who said a senior U.S. diplomat for Africa, Donald Yamamoto, would fly to Chad soon for talks.
One diplomat in N'Djamena, who asked not to be named, said Washington had asked Chad to delay halting its oil output.
Deby, facing attacks against his rule by rebels he says are backed by neighbour Sudan, assured the United Nations he would not forcibly expel more than 200,000 refugees in Chad who have fled violence in the western Sudanese region of Darfur.
This softened a threat he made on Friday when he cut diplomatic ties with Sudan and closed the border a day after rebels raided the Chadian capital N'Djamena in fighting that killed and wounded several hundred people.
Weakened by coup plots and army desertions, Deby is resisting a military offensive by insurgents seeking to end his nearly 16-year rule ahead of a May 3 presidential election in which he is standing for a third term.
Khartoum denies backing the anti-Deby rebels but the dispute has escalated tensions in a region already beset by cross-border violence and refugees fleeing Sudan's Darfur region.
U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan called the tensions between Sudan and Chad worrying and urged the African Union and countries in the region to use their influence with the two countries to avoid further conflict.
"If you have another escalation in Chad you risk destabilising the whole region, not just Chad but also the Central African Republic, a sort of domino effect that we have seen in the Great Lakes region," he told reporters at U.N. headquarters in New York.
The cross-border tensions and Deby's threat to eject the Darfur refugees has increased pressure on the United Nations to solve the 3-year-old conflict in Sudan's vast west, which has killed tens of thousands and displaced around 2 million people.
The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, Antonio Guterres said on Monday he had obtained an assurance from Deby that the Darfur refugees in Chad would not be expelled.
Chad had also threatened to stop its 160,000-170,000 barrels per day (bpd) oil output at midday Tuesday unless the World Bank released the frozen oil royalties or it was paid at least $100 million by the U.S.-led oil consortium.
But the government extended the deadline to the end of this month following the U.S. government's offer to help out.
The diplomat said Yamamoto, U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs, wrote to the Chadian ambassador in Washington on Saturday asking him to delay the Tuesday shut-off.
"The government is happy to accept the American government's mediation offer," the Chadian statement said.
When it set the original Tuesday deadline, the government asked the companies operating in Chad, U.S. oil majors Exxon Mobil and Chevron and Malaysia's Petronas, to pay the royalties directly to the state treasury.
The oil royalties were blocked by the World Bank and the companies after Chad changed an oil revenue law which earmarked a share of revenues for social spending for future generations.
Chad's capital N'Djamena was quiet on Monday, four days after the rebel attack that put a 1,200-strong French military contingent stationed in the country on high alert.
France says its forces provide logistics and intelligence support to Deby's government under a military accord. A French warplane fired warning shots over a rebel column last week.
The rebels said they had written to French Foreign Minister Philippe Douste-Blazy requesting a meeting to discuss the role of French troops in the country. But the French foreign ministry said it had no knowledge of the letter.
Deby has said Chad needs to access oil revenues more quickly to help bolster national security.
The World Bank suspended loans to Chad on January 12, saying the government had breached a prior agreement with the bank.
(Additional reporting by Sue Pleming in Washington, Betel Miarom in N'Djamena, Richard Waddington in Geneva and Jon Boyle in Paris, Evelyn Leopold at United Nations in New York)
- 194 World Financial Institutions